Mario Mandzukic and Atletico Madrid Are a Great Match

Aleksandar Holiga@@AlexHoligaFeatured ColumnistJuly 17, 2014

Croatia's Mario Mandzukic listens to the national anthem ahead of the international soccer friendly match between Croatia and Mali, in Osijek, Croatia, Saturday, May 31, 2014. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
Darko Bandic/Associated Press

If his character and style are anything to go by, the Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic will love it at Vicente Calderon. And if he keeps doing what he does best, the Atleti faithful will love him back.

The Djilkos (pronounced “jeel-kosh”) was a nickname given to Mandzukic by Ciro Blazevic, the legendary coach famous for leading Croatia to third place at the 1998 World Cup. While the expression originates from Hungarian language where it means “killer,” it assumed a different meaning in local slang: A “djilkos” is someone who is brash, presumptuous and generally unsophisticated.

Blazevic meant it in a cheeky, endearing way and almost as a compliment. Mandzukic didn’t care for it. In an interview for Sportske novosti daily newspaper three years ago (original article in Croatian), he said it was disrespectful and asked the media not to call him that anymore.

The wily old manager knew exactly what he was talking about, though.

It may be vaguely offensive, but the moniker vividly describes Mandzukic’s style, which was first observed by Blazevic when he worked with him at NK Zagreb in 2006. There is nothing sophisticated about it: His technique leaves much to be desired, and he doesn't even touch the ball too many times during a game. He can rarely beat an opponent one-on-one.

Instead, he is this vehement and incredibly powerful storm trooper, leading the charge with the ferocity of a barbarian warlord ready to conquer and pillage. Opponents bounce off him as if trying to mount a moving vehicle.

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But Mandzukic is not a classical battering ram of a striker, either. Rather, he is a mean pressing machine, using his seemingly endless stamina to drive defenders back or pull them wide, creating space for others to exploit. In that, he is perhaps a somewhat idiosyncratic player at top level: a centre-forward whose true value lies not as much in goals scored as in the amount of physical work he does.

Of course, that was never going to be good enough for Pep Guardiola.

Kerstin Joensson/Associated Press

Although the Bayern coach was aware of the qualities his atypical striker brought to the mix, Mandzukic was just too physical for his tastes—too much of a “djilkos,” if you will. A divorce had been in the cards ever since the news of the club agreeing terms with Robert Lewandowski leaked, and the Croat’s transfer this summer hardly came as a surprise.

“Let’s be honest, I can’t play to my strengths under Guardiola’s style,” Mandzukic finally came clear just before the World Cup in Sportske novosti, via the Guardian. “It’s best for both parties that we go our separate ways.”

Several English and Italian clubs were rumoured to be interested in his services, but it was Atletico Madrid who signed him in the end. All things considered, it’s not hard to see why it could prove to be a very good choice for both Mandzukic and his new team.

You can call Atleti many things, but “sophisticated” is not one of them.

They can hardly be much more different from the possession-based football of the Bavarians and their strategist Pep Guardiola, the high priest of tiki-taka. The Rojiblancos coach Diego Simeone talks of guts and balls and self-sacrifice; he bases his football around quick transition and devastating counter-attacks.

The Spanish champions have established patterns of their attacking, as well as defensive play, although they do keep evolving. Last season they often looked too dependent on their star striker Diego Costa, who scored 27 league goals, 35 per cent of their La Liga total. He left for Chelsea and the Croat was brought in to take his place.

Mandzukic will probably never score as many as Costa. He’s a good, but by no means superb finisher; most of his goals for Bayern last season came from close range, with a whopping 43.5 per cent of them headers. When he’s in the air, it’s very difficult to stop him.

What he could do, however, is make others score more often. Perhaps that was the logic behind signing him: Since it’s next to impossible to find a like-for-like replacement for Costa, at least one of comparable quality, Simeone must find a way to reduce the team’s over-reliance on their star man up front.

Players like Koke, Raul Garcia and Arda Turan all provide good support from behind. The trio registered 20 assists among them; they also scored 18 goals, while they arguably could score more. With Mandzukic on board, that could well become Simeone’s new agenda.

RECIFE, BRAZIL - JUNE 23:  Mario Mandzukic of Croatia and Paul Aguilar of Mexico compete for the ball during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group A match between Croatia and Mexico at Arena Pernambuco on June 23, 2014 in Recife, Brazil.  (Photo by Jamie M
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

While he is not as complete a player as Costa is, he offers something different in terms of build-up play. His predecessor would drop deep trying to pull forward the back line, then run at defenders one-on-one and search for space behind them. Mandzukic will press them back or work the wide areas, constantly taunting opponents with his relentless energy and sheer force.

He should also become a focal point for his team’s quick counters. Due to his ability to beat any opponent in the air, we are likely to see him targeted by those long balls Simeone’s men like to try quite often, doing lay-offs for team mates or holding on to the ball while help arrives.

Of course, a lot will depend on who will partner him up front: With David Villa also gone, Atletico Madrid are certainly in need of another quality forward if they want to stay competitive domestically and in the Champions League.

But above all, the intense Argentinian coach could prove just the right boss for Mandzukic, one who can harness his skills and put them into optimal use. If the player’s character and his work ethic are anything to go by, he’ll love working with Diego Simeone—and the feeling could easily become mutual.

In Vicente Calderon, the Djilkos might finally found a true home.

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